The "haberdashery" across from Louie's Pizza downtown is nothing but a front. It's a gin joint, a cocktail bar, run by the Lee Spirits Company. They call it Brooklyn's on Boulder Street, and every drink starts with Lee Spirits gin. Beyond the foyer, there's a small, richly decorated space that churns out pre-Prohibition-style cocktails. To be brief, this place hits on all sixes.
Head bartender Nate Windham has a laudable resumé, including Red Martini, Blondie's, The Blue Star, and the short-lived-but-memorable Palapa's Surfside. He got his start in 1996 in an eight-week TGI Friday's training course, learning 439 drinks. Windham's joined by Urban Steam alum Eliza Lovett and Erica Mullett of The Principal's Office, whose cocktail chops need little introduction.
But Windham is the resident hooch historian, and he's been developing the cocktail program here since before the first batch of Lee Spirits gin hit bottle. He says that cousins Ian and Nick Lee, the founders of Lee Spirits, sought out Blue Star owner Joseph Coleman for help formulating a pre-Prohibition-style gin. Coleman put Windham on the job.
"Their whole idea was to build a gin that fit into classic cocktails exactly as the recipe was written," says Windham. "Nowadays, we have to move the proportions of gin to everything else based on the type of gin we use." Most modern gins, he explains, are a little cleaner, lighter on juniper berry and botanicals. They're meant to be easy drinkers without as much fussing or balancing.
The Lees produce a hearty gin with botanicals that play against the juniper for a strong-but-not-overwhelming profile. It's ideal for the selection of classic cocktails that make up most of Brooklyn's menu, sourced from Windham's collection of 19th-century cocktail books. His Martinez — a version of the Manhattan that would ultimately beget the iconic martini — traces back to the original printed recipe in the 1887 edition of Bar-Tender's Guide, by Jerry Thomas. In Thomas' Martinez, gin meets sweet vermouth, maraschino and Boker's bitters for a harmony of caramel, cherry and herbaceous goodness.
Windham has built and curated his bar-back with the same attention to detail. He picked his dry vermouth, Noilly Prat, only after researching century-plus-old shipping manifests to confirm theirs was the first to make it to the U.S. Nobody is making Boker's bitters, an ingredient in many pre-Prohibition cocktails, so he's formulating a house recipe. Once ready, Brooklyn's will have the closest thing to a historically accurate Martinez as Windham can make.
While Windham has found it a challenge to work around a single spirit, gin offers advantages.
"The good thing about using gin is that probably 60 percent of the world's classic cocktails were based on gin," he says. "Gin was the cocktail spirit." However, he has found that a lot of people don't think they like gin. That's why he's formulated a few original cocktails for the gin-averse.
Take the Bee's Knees, a combination of lavender-infused gin with local honey and lemon. It's fresh as a spring breeze, friendly in its cleanness but complex enough to fascinate. The Says You shakes gin with sweet vermouth, sweet potato liqueur and an egg yolk, going down dangerously easy.
The classics, which make up most of the menu, include orthodox takes on the martini, the Negroni and many more. All I tried are sublime. But there's an oddball, a specific request by Ian Lee: gin and juice. Brooklyn's stocks a selection of fresh juices, plus a bottle of purple grape juice to keep it Snoop Dogg-legit for those committed. Sure, it's a step away from the Prohibition aesthetic, but it fits the respect for tradition.
The food, prepared by the adjacent Wild Goose's kitchen, also leaves period-appropriateness behind, but it appears plenty ritzy. A deconstructed bruschetta features toasted bread, wedges of juicy red and yellow tomato and a sizable ball of rich burrata, a blend of mozzarella and cream served without the typical outer shell. For a meatier option, the White Lightning consists of three crackers topped with lobster claw, microgreens, prosciutto and balsamic pearls. Sweet, juicy lobster gets the spotlight — the prosciutto and balsamic add only subtle emphasis, and when there's good lobster at stake, that's a canny decision. The 18th Amendment, a trio of tacos, allows for a diner's pick of three daily offerings. Next to beef and pork, the smoked salmon seems like an oddity, but it's on the level, neither too smoky nor too fishy. The pork ranks the weakest, with bell pepper a little prominent.
Dessert is the cat's pajamas. The toffee chocolate mousse has less in common with the light and fluffy standard than it does with fudge. Served with whipped cream and a plate streaked with Kahlua and toasty marshmallow sauce, the rich construction tastes ducky all the way to its chocolate cookie crust. Pair it with one of the interesting gin-infused teas out of a grandma-approved teapot.
That's just one more speakeasy surprise available at Brooklyn's, which pegs a nice balance between innovation and tradition. We'll all be looking forward as the Springs' craft cocktail scene continues to develop, but let this tribute to the past stand as a guidepost to how cocktails are done well, and in fashion.
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